Monday, February 19, 2018

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Back To 1968

Stormont has become the Unionist Alamo, and like the famous Texan bastion, Stormont has now fallen yet again. In spite of the political clouds engulfing the Irish peace process, controversial commentator, Dr John Coulter, uses his Fearless Flying Column today to explain how Unionism can extract itself from another Laurel and Hardy-style ‘fine mess’.

The spirits of those who founded the Provisional IRA must be chuckling with the same laughter they uttered in 1972 as the 2018 peace talks to restore a working parliament at Stormont finally collapsed, heralding in a new period of Direct Rule from Westminster.

In 1972, republican violence had escalated to such a level, the Tory Government at Westminster axed the then Unionist-controlled Stormont Government which had run Northern Ireland since the 1920s.

Now, spin doctors from Sinn Fein and the DUP have been burning the midnight oil since the St Valentine’s Day political massacre as the blame game shifted into top gear.

One thing was certain, there was a deal on the cards, which had the clear potential of restoring the devolved institutions. There’s even a simple solution as to why it failed.

Sinn Fein is more internally disciplined at keeping its hawk wing in check. Whatever compromises Sinn Fein would have to swallow, the Sinn Fein supporters from the hardline republican heartlands were prepared to slug down that bitter medicine.

The DUP does not enjoy that republican-style internal discipline. Party founder and Free Presbyterian Church Moderator, the late Rev Ian Paisley, may now be the subject of history books, but up until just after he signed the St Andrews Agreement in 2006, the ‘Doc’, as he was affectionately known, maintained an iron gauntlet grip over both Church and Party.

The current DUP boss, ex-UUP MLA Arlene Foster, would appear to have more difficulty in convincing the traditional fundamentalist Right-wing Democratic Unionists to follow her lead into an accommodation, deal, arrangement, agreement - put whatever label you like on it - with Sinn Fein.

Perhaps Arlene has looked back to her time in the now election-battered Ulster Unionists and remembered what happened a former leader - David Trimble - when he was perceived to have moved too far ahead without bringing the Right-wing grassroots with him.

Perhaps as Arlene was briefing party colleagues in the DUP on the content of the deal, she recalled the activities of the anti-Belfast Agreement pressure group, Union First, in the UUP and the meaningless meetings of the Ulster Unionist Council which bled the UUP dry financially and politically.

Perhaps Arlene realised the ‘auld maxim’ - put party unity before political progress - was the order of the day over the deal with Sinn Fein, or indeed, even an Irish Language Act.

Then again, Unionism has not boxed clever over the Irish Language Act. Rather than a dilution of British culture, Unionists could have used such an Act to make a political fool out of Sinn Fein. With the Act would have come millions of pounds to implement it.

If the Protestant Loyal Orders and evangelicals within Presbyterianism’s denominations had any sense, they would have embraced the Act and set up Irish language classes in every Orange hall and Presbyterian church hall in Ireland - think of the cash which would have flowed into those halls.

But the sad reality is that Unionism, Orangeism and Presbyterianism did not share this radical vision, so how does the Unionist family extract itself from the current political mess?

The ‘anointing’ of Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill as president and vice-president respectively of Sinn Fein clearly proves the republican movement sees the road to Irish unity as coming via Dublin, not Belfast or London. That way forward equally clearly depends on Sinn Fein winning enough TDs in the next Dail General Election - expected later this year - to guarantee that the republican movement becomes a minority partner with either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail in the next Leinster House coalition government.

With some form of Direct Rule needed to keep Northern Ireland in business financially, then the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference - established under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement - will play a major role. But the Dublin government’s role in the current Conference set-up is merely making recommendations.

A future Dublin government - which would include Sinn Fein as a minority partner - has to push for a redefining of the Conference’s role by getting it upgraded from a recommendation-suggesting body to a decision-making forum, or in plain political terms joint authority via the back door. This is the nightmare scenario for Unionism long-term as a result of the DUP pulling the plug on the deal with Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland.

To boost its chances of that minority government position, Sinn Fein will spin hard to Southern voters that republicans wanted a deal, but the Paisleyite faction in the DUP dumped a barrel-load of cold water on it, thereby proving that Sinn Fein is a truly democratic movement and not the Provos’ Northern Command apologists trying to tell Southern voters how to run their state.

The DUP has an ace card it must play if the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference whammy is not to knock Unionism for six (and that six could be the six Northern counties of the UK effectively dumped out of the Union).

The DUP must use its influence with the Tories to insist that under any Direct Rule arrangement, Northern Ireland MPs who take their Commons seats should be appointed as Northern Ireland Office Ministers. This is effectively the integrationist policy of former and late UUP boss Jim Molyneaux under another banner.

While Sinn Fein remains the main voice of Northern nationalists and the Paisleyite wing holds sway in the DUP, then the devolution experiment needs to be parked. With the demise of the UUP, the hand of those wanting a single Unionist Party to represent all shades of pro-Union opinion is strengthened. The more UUP members who join the DUP, the more the DUP will become like Molyneaux’s 1980s integrationist UUP.

In the nationalist community, Direct Rule will spell the political death knell for the equally election-battered SDLP. However, it will take time for Fianna Fail to establish itself as the new voice of moderate, middle class nationalism in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein can put as many Mary Lous and Michelles up front as it likes - one reality will always remain in place; Sinn Fein does as the Provisional IRA’s Army Council tells it. The Provos as a terrorist organisation will never go away, you know; the Army Council will merely change the method by way it exerts its influence and control over the republican movement.

For the Good Friday Agreement generation, the devolution experience is over and parked. Just as the 1994 paramilitary ceasefires prepared the ground for the Good Friday Agreement, so too, will Direct Rule prepare the ground for a new agreement between a Northern Fianna Fail (including a merged SDLP) and The Unionist Party (involving the merged DUP and UUP).

In the meantime, the key aims of the Northern Ireland Office under Direct Rule will be to keep the Province afloat financially; to get the island of Ireland through Brexit economically, and prevent the hardmen in both republicanism and loyalism from indulging in outbursts of sectarian violence.

I’m told reliably this is 2018, but with the events of St Valentine’s week, it seems we have gone back in time to 1968. 

John Coulter is a unionist political commentator and former Blanket columnist. 

John Coulter is also author of ‘An Sais Glas: (The Green Sash): The Road to National Republicanism’, which is available on Amazon Kindle.

Follow John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter